Cover: The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness

The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness

Published Jun 21, 2022

by Michael J. Mazarr


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Research Questions

  1. How should societal characteristics and national competitive advantage be defined?
  2. What is the causal relationship between societal characteristics and competitive outcomes?
  3. What are the specific societal characteristics that have been historically associated with national dynamism and competitive position?
  4. What is the United States' standing in those areas?

Nations rise and fall, succeed or fail in rivalries, and enjoy stability or descend into chaos because of a complex web of factors that affect competitive advantage. One critical component is the package of essential social characteristics of a nation. The ultimate story of the Cold War is that the United States was simply a more competitive society than the Soviet Union: more energetic, more vibrant, more innovative, more productive, more legitimate. Through analysis of comparative studies of historical eras and trends, historical case studies, and the findings of issue-specific empirical research, the report explores how seven characteristics of a society determine its competitive standing and distinguish dynamic and competitively successful nations.

If the history surveyed in this report provides an accurate guide to the future, the fate of the United States in today's rivalries will not be determined solely, or even in significant degree, by the numbers of its weapons or amounts of defense spending or how many proxy wars it wins but by the basic characteristics of its society. The author applies the seven leading characteristics that affect national standing to the United States to create a snapshot of where the country stands. That application provides some reason for optimism. The United States continues to reflect many of these characteristics, and the overall synergistic engine, more than any other large country in the world. However, multiple trends are working to weaken traditional U.S. advantages. Several, such as the corruption of the national information space, pose acute risks to the long-term dynamism and competitiveness of the nation, raising the worrying prospect that the United States has begun to display classic patterns of a major power on the far side of its dynamic and vital curve.

Key Findings

Seven leading societal characteristics are associated with national competitive success

  • These are national ambition and will, unified national identity, shared opportunity, an active state, effective institutions, a learning and adapting society, and competitive diversity and pluralism.
  • There is some causal relationship between these seven characteristics and competitive outcomes in most cases studies the authors examined.

A prudent balance within each of these characteristics is important

  • Factors such as national ambition or pluralism can become competitive handicaps when pushed to an extreme.
  • Some of the characteristics harbor greater risk than others in this regard: Excessive national ambition and will is more dangerous than excessive shared opportunity. But all of them carry some danger when thrown out of balance.

A specific set of factors other than societal characteristics helps determine national competitive standing

  • These include membership in networks of trade and exchange of ideas.
  • It is often the interaction of these nonsocietal factors with the qualities of a nation—the ways in which its character matches or falls out of alignment with the demands of the moment—that determines national fates.

Lasting competitive advantage derives from positive-feedback synergies among the seven nominated societal characteristics

  • It is these blended, interactive effects, creating competitive wholes greater than the sum of their parts, that distinguish the strongest and most competitive nations of each era.
  • Nations whose competitive standing deteriorates tend to manifest weakness in many factors that compound: Competitive failure typically results from a negative-feedback loop of some kind, in the same way that success derives from a positive-feedback loop.

One recipe for national competitive advantage was most consistently associated with success, the Renaissance spirit

  • Competitive societies tend to be open, tolerant, full of intellectual energy and commitment to learning; they have a powerful sense of their own role in the world and a sense of mission or will; they almost always benefit from strong public and private institutions, as well as a state apparatus that actively promotes advantage; and they embody a pluralistic clash of ideas and an ability of people from many backgrounds to offer their talents and succeed.

This research was sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment in the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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